Since the second they met, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) and Bobby Kennedy despised each other. And when Jack Kennedy (JFK) offered Johnson the vice-presidency — a courtesy call after beating and bruising Johnson for the party nomination — Brother Bobby burst into Johnson’s hotel room and begged him to refuse. Johnson looked Bobby in the eye … and accepted.
Not that Bobby Kennedy ever had much in common with lumbering Lyndon. The Kennedy brothers were Boston-Irish Brahmins, riding their father’s millions all the way to the White House. Johnson was a wheeler-dealer from the Deep South (his ruined father haunting him till the end of his days), bullying his way to the Senate by sheer force of personality. Now vice-president, Kennedy’s Ivy League aides thought Johnson a hill-town hick, and knocked him aside. For more and more Americans, Bobby seemed the heir apparent.
So when JFK was shot, and LBJ sworn in, remorse gave way to rage for Bobby Kennedy. “It was quite clear,” said one higher-up, that Bobby could hardly stand “Lyndon Johnson sitting in his brother’s seat”. As the ’60s wore on, LBJ drowned in Vietnam, easing Bobby into a comeback. Johnson, president via sacred constitutional ritual, even began sounding like the usurper: “The thing I feared most from the first day of my Presidency was actually coming true. Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets.”
In any event, Bobby too was shot, and America made to endure six years of Dick Nixon seething in his stead. What was left of the First Family’s presidential hopes dove into a creek along with Ted Kennedy’s car just a year later. But though the Kennedy dynasty crashed and burned before it ever took off, Johnson knew a brother-to-brother succession boded ill — both for himself, and for America’s democratic project. Over 44 presidents, only four have been father and son.
Turn closer to home, and it seems Asia never got the memo. Dynasts are democrats here; the eldest son of Singapore’s Grand Old Man, Lee Kuan Yew, is king of the island. The Burmese junta is busy coping with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father founded the Burma they renamed Myanmar. The Philippines are overrun by families and fiefs, while the Koreas are led by the second Park and the third Kim (though General Park’s daughter stands worlds apart from the mumbling manchild in the north).
And the further south once goes, the harder the corrosion. New Rajapaksas throw their weight around in Sri Lanka. Bangladesh’s battling begums Hasina and Khaleda, daughter of a murdered father and wife of a murdered husband, claw at each other across the length and breadth of Dhaka. Old ideas in a nation of new dreams, one wonders how well Bangladesh could have done without the baggage of its knife-fighting aunties.
The world’s largest democracy, too, remains at the mercy of the House of Nehru: Indira Gandhi was able to outmuscle the old guard that once called her goongi guriya (in no small part down to messrs Yahya, Pirzada, and Bhutto), but the Nehru-Gandhis have been flatlining for a while. A man of the calibre of Manmohan Singh bows to the whims of Rahul Gandhi, a 43-year-old with the world’s worst case of teen angst. But as Indian voters, and not a few Modi-watchers, are fast finding out, Rahul is out of his depth.
And then, of course, comes Pakistan, where bloodlines run rampant from ground up. As the intermarried continue to intermarry, and political parties are given away like family pets, power is shrinking to a tinier and tinier segment of 190 million people — a number screaming for inclusion.
The party of the people threw in its lot with dynasts evermore when Begum Nusrat was anointed Chairperson-For-Life in 1979, over many a talented Hafiz, Hanif and Meraj. In response (or reaction), it used to be the unique selling point of our many Muslim Leagues that leadership didn’t travel via bloodstream. But today’s PMLs in all their shapes and sizes, Ns and Qs and Fs, all have their Chosen Ones in mind.
In a smug piece on the Bhuttos, The Guardian mused how ‘subcontinental’ dynasties perpetuated themselves through “the importance of personalities in contests stripped of ideological content” as well as “high levels of illiteracy, which make a famous name a determining factor for tens of millions of voters”. This kind of foreign tut-tutting forgets how entrenched these families are, fighting elections ideological and non-ideological, across race, class, and literacy level.
The jaahil awam cliche won’t work when jaahil dynasties and mini-dynasties are all that’s left to choose from. And even contests brimming with ideology are often between different sets of brothers and cousins and nephews, running respective party like another friendly family concern. Witness the son of Mufti Mahmood holding sway over the JUI-F’s Deobandi democrats, then veer hard left to watch Bacha Khan’s grandson do the same with the ANP’s Pathan reds.
It might even drive a man to praise both the PTI and the MQM in the same sentence, staying shy of plastering their prodigal sons on buses and billboards. Thus far.
As The Economist put it, “The consequence of being in thrall to a bloodline is a weak party that lacks shared policies or common values. Promotions are made not on merit, but on closeness to the ruling family.” But not all is lost: as both information and urbanisation take hold, people will “want to hold their government to account — over corruption, economic performance, social security and more, caring ever less about bloodlines”. One can only hope.
Besides, if love of family is what drives our leaders to drag their kids into the family business, they might be better served pushing them out altogether. Pakistan’s public arena is growing darker by the day, kidnapping its sons and killing its veterans. It may be better, all said and done, to keep them in the import/export line.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2013.
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